The Defense Department is changing how it handles biohazard threats, acknowledging that internal breakdowns delayed its response to a March 14 anthrax scare at the Pentagon and nearby office buildings, confused the rest of the federal government and alarmed state and local public health workers, officials said.
Under fire for gaps with civilian bioterrorism detection and response systems, military officials said they will quicken reporting of test results from biological sensors around their Arlington headquarters to no more than 24 hours and shift away from using contract laboratories. It took three days to get results from a contractor after the March 14 incident.
Defense officials acknowledged the need to align laboratory testing protocols with those used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They also agreed that they should coordinate with local health officials when ordering emergency medical treatment for defense workers.
Pentagon representatives discussed the steps Friday during an "after-action" review chaired by Thomas J. Lockwood, national capital region coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security. Representatives from the White House, FBI, Health and Human Services Department and U.S. Postal Service, as well as state and local officials, were present.
Officials described preliminary results on condition of anonymity because the review is not complete and because multiple agencies are involved. One participant said the two-hour meeting evolved from a "tense" set of exchanges to "a real air of candid, . . . open sharing of information."
Valerie Smith, spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, said: "Federal, state and local agencies involved in [the] mail facility situation had an after-action review meeting [Friday] to discuss the event and analyze protocols, coordination and response. Meeting to discuss these issues gives all parties the opportunity to learn from past experience."
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff ordered the review after alerts in two military mailrooms shut the main delivery center at the Pentagon, disrupted mail delivery to U.S. government offices and put 900 workers in several buildings on antibiotics for three days.
Although the presence of anthrax bacteria in one of four samples taken March 10 from the Pentagon's Remote Delivery Facility was confirmed by three laboratories, subsequent testing found no trace of the toxin. Senior military officials said the most plausible explanation was contamination by the original contractor laboratory, Commonwealth Biotechnologies Inc. of Richmond, which has said a subsequent review produced no evidence of surface, air or sample contamination.
Another March 14 airborne alert at a mailroom in the Skyline office building complex in Baileys Crossroads -- whose defense contractor employees receive mail from the Pentagon facility -- turned out not to signal the presence of any hazardous substance and apparently was a coincidence. About 800 workers were locked down for six hours in that case.
Overall, national bioterrorism experts inside government and out say the episode revealed lingering problems in achieving a coordinated emergency response since the area's anthrax attacks through the mail in 2001. Virginia and District leaders have said they were kept out of the loop early in the recent incident, potentially endangering the public. Local elected officials as well as members of Congress have called for reviews.